How the North Carolina Courage moved the NWSL one step closer to stability

Andy Mead-ISI Photos

Steve Malik's purchase of the Western New York Flash introduced a new model for viability into the NWSL.

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Taken at face value, Paul Riley’s words were surprising.

“This year, we feel fulfilled,” the North Carolina Courage coach said following his team’s 2017 National Women’s Soccer League Championship loss. “I feel like the team, I don’t know if we could have played any better in the final. We didn’t play great last year in the final, so it’s a huge improvement this year. I thought we were really good today. I can’t imagine playing better and losing a game. It’s hard to even digest it.”

I said I just bought the best women’s pro team in the world and they are coming here. These ladies made me look fabulous.

- Steve Malik

Riley had just watched his team get beaten and bruised in a 1-0 loss to the Portland Thorns. North Carolina was the No. 1 seed in the playoffs and featured a core of players and a head coach nearly identical to the team that won the title the year prior as the Western New York Flash. So, how was it that Riley was sitting underneath Orlando City Stadium with the demeanor of a championship-winning coach?

Riley, along with his players, had the benefit of perspective. There was some anger, sure. How couldn’t there be, the way the Courage lost two players to injury in a first half marred by missed calls from referee Danielle Chesky? But Riley and his players were mostly zen-like in their awareness of the bigger picture, one that includes an unlikely championship the year prior but moreso involves a needed change of scenery.

North Carolina is a place that players want to be, a much-needed change from a culture that grew toxic in Western New York. And North Carolina, irrespective of what it did on the field in 2017, is exactly what the NWSL needed in its fifth season: a professionally-run organization with big ambitions.

The surprising move of Western New York

On Dec. 6, 2016, Steve Malik announced his intent to pursue one of Major League Soccer’s forthcoming expansions bids. Cutting ties with the old Carolina Railhawks name, Malik's NASL team rebranded as North Carolina FC. At the press conference, Malik detailed ambitions for the club, including his goal of acquiring a professional women’s team within the next year.

It turns out, he’d barely have to wait a month.

The Flash had just won the NWSL Championship, but off the field, the club was in disrepute. Players faced challenges in resources, and crowds in Rochester, New York, shrunk to an inflated reported average of 3,868 fans per game. It was a far cry from the more glorious WPS crowds in 2011 and the even the 2013 NWSL championship game, which saw an announced crowd of 9,129 fans turn up.

Figuring out a solution for Western New York was a high priority for the NWSL, and Malik’s public declaration proved serendipitous in its timing. On Jan. 9, the Flash’s relocation to North Carolina was announced.

“I said I just bought the best women’s pro team in the world and they are coming here. These ladies made me look fabulous,” says Malik, who admits the timing was “a little opportunistic.”

The move to North Carolina took players by surprise. Captain Abby Erceg, for example, was on vacation hiking through the mountains of her native New Zealand with spotty cell-phone service when she called into an unexpected players’ conference.

The difference between the Flash and Courage has been noticeable, across the board. It’s facilities, first and foremost, Erceg says, are much improved, and the clubs professionalism in handling behind-the-scenes logistics like player housing has removed stress from the players’ lives.

“The way the North Carolina Courage are doing it, it’s great,” Erceg said. “They’ve just given us everything that we ever needed, everything that we want. I’m going to compare that to being in Buffalo, it just helps you so much. There’s so much less stress when you take the field. It’s just less work for the players to do – just focus on what you’re doing. If we feel that way, I’m sure the men feel that way as well. I think that they are leading on that side of the game.”

What North Carolina means to the NWSL’s balance of power

Malik has quickly become a major player in the NWSL. The gap between more and less ambitious owners – a prospect Malik has also had to navigate in the NASL – appears to be widening as the NWSL pushes to raise its standards.

Malik lines up with those in the league who see a high ceiling for the NWSL. Such heights can’t be reached without significant further investment.

“I do think that there’s some basic agreement that we all want to get that,” he says. “Everybody agrees on that. What you are really talking about is raising the rate of the standards.”

North Carolina is a beacon of the league’s path to a stronger future. The league has 10 teams, and expansion once again appears completely off the table for the 2018 season. Instead, the priority is strengthening the franchises currently holding the league back, even if that means relocating some of them to find new ownership.

FC Kansas City changed hands last offseason amid a scandal involving inappropriate emails about players and prospective players. As FourFourTwo first reported, the two-time championship-winning club is set for another change of ownership – and possible relocation – this offseason amid player and league unrest with new owner Elam Baer.

“There’s not a timeline, but it is a priority for us,” Duffy said of FC Kansas City’s future prior to the NWSL Championship. She did not elaborate.

Kansas City is not the only market of concern, either, and that is where the balance of power in the boardroom becomes a factor. If MLSSporting Kansas City takes over FCKC, it would join Houston, North Carolina, Orlando and Portland as NWSL teams backed by men’s teams. Add in A&E/NWSL Media’s ownership stakes and its two seats at the table, and the progressive bloc would have a nearly two-thirds majority vote.

In that scenario, it’s much easier to see an expedited path to a league which pays its players more, plays in only first-class stadiums and has visibility beyond its still-limited niche.

“I would say that I’m pro-expansion,” says Malik. “I do think that a league with 10 teams is going to have a little harder time getting national sponsors relative to a league that has more teams and covers more markets.”

Expansion, the NWSL has long claimed, is coming. Former commissioner Jeff Plush, who left his post in February, spoke frequently about the interest of nearly a dozen groups. But first, the league’s weaker franchises need stabilizing. Kansas City is first and foremost. What is the path forward for bottom-dwelling Boston? How will Seattle deal with potentially losing it stadium as early as 2019? Will Sky Blue FC ever get out of the quagmire that is central New Jersey?

North Carolina’s successful first year provides a model. As Malik notes, the 2017 season came together in all of three months. Imagine what the Courage can be with a full offseason of planning.

Another edition of the ideal NWSL franchise model

There is an endearing video on the Oak City Supporters’ Instagram account of Courage forward Jessica McDonald playing the role of capo, feverishly beating a drum during a North Carolina FC match. It’s a sign of the camaraderie which quickly developed between the incumbent NASL team and the Courage, says 32-year-old Oak City Supporters president Ryan Jernigan.

When @jmac1422 joins you for some drumming on the Capo stand and @nazmialbadawi scores the opening goal.

A post shared by Oak City Supporters (@oakcitysupporters) on

At first, North Carolina FC fans didn’t know what to expect. There isn’t much fanfare for players in the NASL, but with the club’s women’s side, the group soon realized it’d be hosting some of the best players in the world.

“Every week here you have a U.S. women’s national team player at WakeMed Soccer Park,” Jernigan says. “You have various international players. That was different. I didn’t know how that would necessarily work. I lived in New York for a while and I went to Red Bulls games. I never met those players. Here, we had a season-ticket holders gathering, and we started up some Courage chants, and the women were super into it.”

North Carolina’s announced an averaged attendance of 4,389 fans per game was fourth-best in the NWSL behind the three MLS-owned teams and negligibly more than NCFC’s. The Courage ended the season with a crowd of over 7,000 in its regular-season finale and an announced sellout of 10,000-plus for its semifinal a week later.

The Courage has also helped attract a new demographic of clientele to WakeMed Soccer Park. Jernigan says said he heard from a fellow supporter after posting that McDonald video to Instagram: “Oh, you have a men’s team?”

“It has been absolutely phenomenal,” McDonald said. “It’s just cool to see a fan base like them engaged in our games - truly engaged. That gets us pumped up.”

The formula is very simple, as Malik lays it out, and it is one that continues to prove successful when the right people are actually willing to try it: Treat women’s soccer with the same professionalism as men’s soccer.

“I’ve been in business a long time, and I know you want to treat everybody with respect, and you get the best of them when they feel valued,” Malik says.

The message is clear: The men’s and women’s teams are equals.

“Long term, I would hope that would be a successful strategy,” he said. “I just think that’s not a hard thing to. I would treat everyone that way whether an engineer or a sales guy at my company. I’d say the same thing about the staff.”

It’s a top-down approach which is now hitting the grassroots. The North Carolina FC/Courage brands extend to some 14,000 youth players and counting, including a Courage Girls’ Development Academy program which Malik calls “a watershed moment for the sport.”

Four Courage DA teams played matches the morning of the final before heading to Orlando City Stadium to watch the senior team compete for a title. The U-18/U-19 match between the Courage and Orlando Pride was U.S. Soccer’s featured game broadcast on Facebook in what feels like a harbinger for the future development of the women’s game.

The models are not perfect. Orlando is a solid franchise relative to the league, but it has fallen well short of naively lofty attendance and business ambitions. Houston is less convincing as it struggles to find a direction both on and off the field. Portland remains the blue heron of the league, a position underscored by the Thorns fans who traveled cross-country and slightly outnumbered Courage supporters at the final.

And there should be skepticism around the Courage. Like any product, the shine could wear off in the second year, though the strong support in the team’s final two home games suggests a momentum building for a team which appeared in the middle of the night and has drummed up interest over a successful first season.

North Carolina fell short in a championship game which will not be remembered as a highlight of the league’s five-year existence. But the Courage’s first season is another step for the NWSL, one which keeps moving the league from survival to sustainability.

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